Archive for December, 2020

It was going to be a beautiful day for December, sunny and highs in the low sixties, both at home in Chapel Hill NC and 130 miles northwest in Roanoke VA. The weather would not be this pleasant again for months. Where to go? Why not Roanoke VA? At a little over two and a half hours each way driving Roanoke is about my limit for a one day up and back car ride. I had visited the downtown area of Roanoke before but had never explored its neighborhoods.

I drove our 2005 Prius from Chapel Hill NC to Roanoke VA on the back roads and arrived late morning into the fringes of Roanoke looking for somewhere to park the car for the day. This lower-class looking neighborhood fronted a greenway that I had not been familiar with. Why not just park here and start bicycling?

I pulled the Bike Friday out of the car.
The Roanoke River Greenway was just a block away. I started bicycling.
On this sunny day in a park someone has these cars out; MGB and Austin-Healy 3000

Roanoke is at a low spot in the Blue Ridge Mountains, making it a natural east/west transit point. Unusual among the larger cities of Virginia, Roanoke (current population 99,000) was not a major city in Colonial times. Before 1880 there had been a settlement here called Big Lick that had only a few hundred people. Big Lick was renamed Roanoke and became a railroad boomtown starting in about 1884. By 1900 there were 21,000 people living here, by 1950 91,000. Before it merged with other railroads in 1982 to become the now Atlanta based Norfolk Southern, for about a hundred years Roanoke was the corporate and operational headquarters of the Norfolk & Western Railway. Until 1953 all of N&W’s steam locomotives were built here, the last ones of which, the streamlined “J” class, were the about most advanced coal-powered steam locomotives ever built.

Recent Wikipedia photo of N&W no. 611, designed and built in Roanoke in 1950 and now restored and part of Roanoke’s Virginia Museum of Transportation

Roanoke continues to be a hub for Norfolk Southern, although I am sure there are dramatically fewer employees now.

Cycling on the greenway until it ended, I turned onto the streets of this hilly city. Because of its rapid growth early in the 20th century, I discovered that Roanoke has miles of neighborhoods built in that era, often several miles from downtown. I cannot think of any North Carolina city that has as many intact neighborhoods of early 20th century housing as Roanoke VA.

1920’s multifamily
Apartment building maybe 1940?

I bicycled back towards downtown, noodling around the streets, just taking in the urbanity of it all.

Older, turn of the Twentieth Century houses near Downtown

I cycled through Downtown on this Sunday early afternoon.

Art Deco

It was past lunchtime. From home in Chapel Hill I had brought a peanut butter sandwich (on whole grain bread from Weaver Street Market!) Downtown right next to the railroad tracks is the Taubman Art Museum which sits behind Morning Brew Coffee Co. I got an almond milk latte and sat outside socially distant, eating my sandwich and peacefully watching the world go by, especially the trains on the adjacent tracks.

Terrace of the Morning Brew, including the only other patrons, two old guys I did not know

I then bicycled underneath the highway overpass next to the art museum and Downtown so that I could see the huge railroad maintenance facility Roanoke Shops. In the 1930’s it employed six thousand. This is where all the N&W steam locomotives were built. Roanoke Shops has been gradually shuttered over fifty years. The last major operations were terminated in June 2020 although even on this Sunday afternoon it appeared to me that work here was still going on.


I cycled around to the other side of the Shops complex, looking for better views, but I ended up just noodling through other Roanoke neighborhoods.

car repair on the other side of the tracks

I had telephoned my best Roanoke connection and he immediately invited me over for socially distant hanging out at his house, which was back in the southwestern part of town that I had visited earlier. I had met Chuck Reedy in graduate school in Arizona in about 1979 and we have stayed in touch. He has lived in Roanoke about all his life and he and his wife Carol have a lovely circa 1923 house. We sat on opposite sides of his front porch.

Chuck and Carol

My car was parked several miles away. I bid goodbye to Chuck and Carol and bicycled back through to the other side of Downtown, then across the Roanoke River.

Cycling back to my car on the Greenway

I put the bicycle in the car and drove home to Chapel Hill in time for dinner.

Postscript: Those who are not interested in bathroom TMI can stop reading now.

Especially during a pandemic it is difficult to find a bathroom when cycling in cities. Much earlier in the day I needed to go. As I cycled on a residential street through one of those older Roanoke neighborhoods, the houses and street pushed up against a cliff, below which appeared to be a public park. The house at the end of the block had a lot of stuff in the yard. Just beyond what appeared to be the property line between their lot and the park and next to the street stood this port-a-john. Why was this here? Who does this belong to? Was this part of the park or these people’s yard?

No one seemed to be around or looking so I took my chances. In my life I have never entered a port-a-potty that was anything other than disgusting. This one smelled, seriously, like lilacs. It was quite nice, like visiting someone’s guest bathroom.

furry red seat cover! toiletries! Merry Christmas!

Where to bike ride next? It was cold outside; winter has arrived. I wanted to ride but did not want to contribute to the pandemic by warming up inside a closed space like a coffee house or restaurant. I would have to do the bike ride in one fell swoop without rest stops. I drove our Prius just a little over one hour west from Chapel Hill and parked on the street in downtown Thomasville NC (population 25,000.) Here is the bike ride I took.

Thomasville writes its town motto on the downtown public trash cans.

And just a block away was what locals call Big Chair, which has been in the central square of Thomasville NC since 1922.

Big Chair is very big; for sizing see my bicycle in the lower bottom corner of the photo.
On the left is City Hall with the motto In God We Trust

Downtown to downtown, Thomasville NC is only eight miles from the much larger High Point NC. Both cities grew up around the furniture industry, which has declined precipitously in the past twenty years. On this bike ride I saw evidence that this industry has declined but there is still a lot of furniture manufacturing going on. High Point remains a major furniture exhibition site.

I started cycling northwest towards High Point, following the railroad tracks.

Downtown, right across the tracks from Big Chair you can buy your guns.

On the ride to High Point I was able to find relatively minor roads to bicycle on. Thomasville clearly used to be prosperous.

This lovely house is outwardly a mess but the original style continues.

I passed many older brick industrial buildings.

Some that looked like they are used for manufacturing, some as retail, some abandoned, mixed with the occasional auto junkyard.

I passed several manufacturers very much in business.

Future Foam makes foam for the furniture industry.

Thayer Coggin makes modernist sofas

I cycled right by the factory for Thomas Built Buses, whose name I remember from riding the school bus fifty years ago. Thomas Built Buses have all been made here in High Point NC. It is the same company which built the still in use New Orleans streetcars back in the 1920’s.

It is now owned by German-based Daimler.
It is unusual to see a UAW union flag here in North Carolina.

Passing vacant industries on the way to downtown High Point, it sometimes felt creepy. It was a weekday but no one was around.

Downtown High Point has huge exhibition halls for the wholesale furniture trade. Because these buildings are only used a small portion of the year, it felt like a neutron bomb had gone off, killing all living things. Hardly any people or even cars could be seen on this Wednesday afternoon.

Looking up Main Street, High Point NC
This looks like a shopping mall but it is for wholesale furniture just during furniture events.
Just to be sure I got off the bicycle and checked the door. All was locked, no one was around.

Several miles past downtown I cycled towards the Emerywood neighborhood; green lawns and shaded curved streets with early and mid twentieth century houses, It was the only part of High Point that I saw that looked like it was not under stress. My Chapel Hill friend the photographer John Ripley grew up in Emerywood in this house. He recently described this house to me (accurately!) as “halfway between the Episcopal Church and the High Point Country Club.”

John’s childhood home in High Point

I gradually started cycling back towards Thomasville, taking a different route.

I was a decent ride through more industrial areas. Just before I arrived back at my car in Thomasville I passed a pre-WWII gas station.

The gas station has been converted to selling tombstones!

I arrived back at my car on the street in downtown Thomasville and I drove home in time for dinner. I stopped at the Starbucks in south Greensboro for a latte to drink while driving.